Linda Whetstone, aged 79, passed on December 15th 2021 in Miami Florida, doing the work she loved, with the friends she made, and the people she helped all around her.
She was not a household name but had toiled behind the scenes of the freedom movement for over sixty years as a self-declared “second-hand dealer in ideas”. This was how Friedrich Von Hayek described the graft of making academic ideas accessible to all – acutely relevant to the work Linda did sharing texts and contacts that enabled change in some of the most deprived places on earth.
In this field she was a titan, the chair of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS), the Atlas Network, and Network for a Free Society (NFS). She had been a Board member of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) for over 30 years and also on the Council of the Islam and Liberty Network.
Linda was the daughter of Sir Antony Fisher, the co-founder of the IEA, whose wartime experiences and clear-eyed view of the dangers of communism inspired his lifetime commitment to classical liberalism. In an interview last year with IEA Director General Mark Littlewood she said: “We believed in limited Government and individual freedom… freedom was the solution to many problems, Government wasn’t”.
She was present and involved in her father’s work from the start. When the IEA opened their first offices in Hobart Place she recalled, “there I was at the age of 14 making tea in the basement for Arthur Seldon”, the editor of the IEA’s early publications.
While it took the IEA more than 20 years to have an impact on British public life, in 1971 Sir Antony also set up the International Institute for Economic Research (IIER), similar to the IEA but with a focus on international policy. He remarried, moved to America and in 1981 he founded the Atlas Network as a body for creating IEAs all over the world. After his death in 1988 Linda took over and reshaped the IIER, becoming the International Policy Network, then NFS.
Her key insight was that there were many places where people had no exposure whatsoever to the ideas that had motivated her and her father. “The concept of a free society must be supported, promoted and defended”, she said. But first it must be seen and understood. At the time of his death, Atlas was principally a US-based organisation with 44 members, but in countries already largely free.
In her words, she said “I’m not an academic, I have nowhere near the brainpower of those people, but I have a passion for making their ideas available to people around the world. People who see the misery, repression and poverty in which they live, see the success of so many places in the world, and they wonder what it is they have to do to get that to happen in their countries.”
“Dad was never able to get things into Asia and Africa, it took too long. That changed when the Internet came along, people were able to find us. Turkey, Ghana, India, and Pakistan were early additions (to the network). But what they wanted was books. Books about free societies and the rule of law.”
However, it was still too expensive and sometimes risky to send books, and rarely possible to print them locally. In many places digital and IT infrastructure was so weak that sending attachments was of limited use. Linda’s great innovation was the Ideas for a Free Society CD, a library of over 100 key texts translated into local languages that became a cheap and portable learning resource. Each one only costing a dollar to manufacture and deliver. Each one easy to share and use to train others.
“It started with only a few hundred sent three countries, and then they came back for more. It ended up with 80,000 sent from our kitchen table”, Linda noted. A number that is now over 150,000. The process of distribution was equally important, enabling Linda to identify and network leaders, who could then be cultivated to form other groups. It is hard to overstate how much personal time she gave directly speaking to people, motivating, and mobilising them to help others.
French translations of Foundations of a Free Society by Eamonn Butler were distributed in Burundi, a country that ranked 186th out of 190 for the world bank doing business index. One contact on exposure to a Students for Liberty event in Kenya went on to create chapters across Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo, eventually setting up a think tank whose work helped cut the cost of registering a business in Burundi from $78 to $22, in turn increasing business registrations by 50 per cent in a year.
An Indonesian partner, empowered by translations of the IEA book Free Trade and How it Enriches us campaigned against Government policy encouraging food self-sufficiency that banned imports and drove up the cost of food. Their success in overturning it saved Indonesians over $1.9bn by 2020.
She worked with the Afghan Economic and Legal Organisation for 10 years, taking two motivated individuals and helping them build a body that ran an academy, radio station and educational conferences for over 400 people focused on tolerance, freedom, and peace. When disaster struck this year, she worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get them out. Using her contacts and networks to create safe passages and new partnerships that have now resulted in over 3,000 lives saved. The Taliban would now like AELSO to return and continue their work.
She held an event in Nairobi, handing out CDs. Six months later she got a call from a student in Ethiopia whose brother’s friend has attended the conference and passed from one person to another until it had reached him. He’d read all 100 texts and desperately wanted help to set up a think tank.
She had texts on Public Choice translated into Farsi and distributed in Iran. She co-edited Islamic Foundations of a Free Society, highlighting the compatibility of these ideas with the faith. Something she described, again with typical understatement as being “a little cog to make those ideas available”.
In the last year she was interested in how digital learning platforms could be utilised to further improve accessibility for even more people. She supported the IEA’s newest recruits to build better resources, setting up meetings in Miami for them, and others, in her last days. She was an inspiration to all who knew her and leaves us with so much more than her words.
“I’m more a little old lady than a titan… I’ve made so many friends… I’ve seen some amazing changes, and I know all the people who did it… watching countries turn from basket cases into some of the most admired countries in the world.”
She made a difference and she helped others make a difference. She will be sorely missed and fondly remembered. Linda Whetstone 1942-2021.